Monday, April 29, 2019

Original sin is such a misunderstood doctrine among many, and that includes Catholics.

Whenever I prepare talks on doctrine and theology especially meant for the average lay person, I try my best to put myself into their shoes for various reasons, the chief one being that I want to bring across a certain teaching and truth of the faith in a way that not only appeals to their sensibilities, but also to try to address the common misconceptions and misguided prejudices that are prevalent in the majority of people.  This is not only necessary, but also something that is challenging, to say the least.  I need to imagine what it is like to broach a certain teaching with a mind and a biasness that has leanings toward atheism and the buffered self, where one is harbouring certain resentments toward God because of how he has been portrayed in and through the writings of the books of the Old and New Testaments of Sacred Scripture.

Perhaps one of the more challenging doctrines to teach and be received with little objection in our Catholic faith has to be that of Original Sin.  I have found that many non-Catholics who come into the faith or make efforts at wanting to learn about our faith struggle with this.  Many baulk at the fact that every human being, no matter how young, even a newborn infant, is born into sin.  After all, the theological definition of sin is an action that is something that is committed which is a transgression against God’s law, and something that is willfully and knowingly done.  Can a newborn child do this?  Does he or she have the capacity to do this?  Obviously not.  What is this Original Sin that everyone is mired and burdened with then, something that doesn’t even require one’s will to commit?  Adults who embark on the RCIA journey too may think that sin only applies to the big-ticket items on the sin-list like murder and theft and adultery, giving them the idea that confession (especially regular confession after baptism) is highly unnecessary for the average Joe.

Original sin needs to be understood as a condition more than an act.  It is every human being’s urge or tendency toward doing bad things and thereby offending God.  Human beings do not need any training or coercion toward sins like lying and being guileful and wily in life.  As a confessor, I see this in little children who know that they have wronged their parents when they have been untruthful to their parents, doing things that they ought not.  They don’t need to be taught to do such things.  It seems to be an automatic and built-in default that lies in the human DNA. St Augustine explains that because this is a spiritual disease, it is therefore also a fault, and faults deserve judgement and subsequently, condemnation.  It is this condemnation that needs to be forgiven.  This original fault, which is attached to our physical origins, is what baptism forgives.  

I always find it challenging to put this across without a sea of furrowed brows and looks of discomfort in the faces of those to whom I impart this teaching.  The human being is naturally resistant toward being judged and worse, being condemned, especially for a fault that one had been saddled with, and not something that one willingly chose to do. 

Christian doctrine therefore teaches that the only way a human person so mired in a sinful condition can saved from such consequences is through the sheer grace of God, given through the sacrament of Baptism, which comes to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and no other name.

I had a conversation with someone this week, and this person was not a baptized Christian, but had married a Catholic spouse, and they are parents of a child who is now about 30 years of age.  This child was baptized at birth, and the Catholic parent had been faithfully bringing the child up in the faith, basically fulfilling the Catholic’s spouse’s duty to baptize all the children that the marriage is blessed with.  The technical term for such a marriage is a mixed marriage.

As a priest, I was very pleased to know that the child in this marriage was brought up in the faith, received first Holy Communion and Confirmation. In my conversation with the non-Catholic parent, somehow the topic of baptism and original sin came up, I was told that this parent made it clear that there was no such thing as original sin, and that every person is born with no sin at all.  I held my tongue which was itching to say something, and with great effort, stepped into the shoes of my interlocutor.  In so doing, I was trying to see this view from the vista of a person who had no notion of God, and whose idea of God (and religion) was most likely one that was greatly influenced by secularism, subjectivism, the dominance of individualism, rationalism and even the social media. All these are great promoters of the idea that there is no such thing as an objective sin, and advocates of this philosophy of the central “I” have a great resistance to the fact that anyone needs to be saved, especially from sin that one hasn’t personally committed, which is what Original Sin is.

I will have to accept the fact that my task as a priest and an educator of the faith will always see me being ready to give a response to such ideas and objections with clarity and charity.  It’s not the clarity-part that is challenging.  I have come to realise that it is often the charity-part that needs the greatest effort.  It is the need to step into the shoes of the other, even walking around for a while in them, and to understand (often with compassion) the views and opinions of the other before saying a word.  And the only thing that makes this possible to do is humility.  I have also come to realise that once humility is lacking, hard truths of the Church will be very much resisted, and if accepted, will only be accepted with great reluctance and hearts that are hard.

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